by James Bovard
More than 50 years after President John F. Kennedy secretly purchased 1,200 Cuban cigars prior to imposing a trade embargo on Fidel Castro’s regime, President Barack Obama said on Dec. 17 that he is reopening diplomatic relations with Cuba and hopes Congress will end the commercial embargo.
Cigar aficionados stood up immediately, in the hope that the U.S. Customs Service might no longer stand between Americans and Cuban cigars. But the Food and Drug Administration could torpedo the first shipment before it reaches port.
The FDA has fired a 70,000-word barrage of proposed restrictions on the sale and marketing of electronic cigarettes, pipe tobacco, and other tobacco products. The worst damage could be suffered by cigars—one of the least favorite items in the contemporary regulatory universe.
Cigar smokers, like cigarette and pipe smokers, have been vilified and persecuted in recent years. In 2009, the federal tax on small cigars was boosted 27-fold and the tax on large cigars jumped eightfold. The Obama administration is pushing for another 93% boost in federal cigar and tobacco taxes.
There are no solid numbers for how many Americans regularly smoke cigars. A 2010 federal survey alleged that 13 million people had smoked a cigar in the prior 30 days.
Cigars are particularly vulnerable to an FDA proposal to require companies to file premarket tobacco applications for any tobacco product that was not sold in the U.S. as of Feb. 15, 2007. Almost four-fifths of currently sold cigars—and all of those that might someday be imported from Cuba—could be banished from the market under that provision. Manufacturers and importers would be obliged to cease selling such items or spend years and hundreds of thousands of dollars seeking FDA approval for each product. Imagine if wine distributors had to get approval for every new vintage from every vineyard in the world.
The FDA suggests that it might exempt from regulation “premium cigars” that cost at least $10 apiece. Does the FDA believe that only people with money to burn should have free choice? Even if the FDA initially spares premium smokes, that will soon be portrayed as a loophole that must be closed.
Mitch Zeller, the head of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products, stresses that the recent proposal “will allow us to propose further regulatory action on these and yet-to-be-conceived tobacco products.”
THE FDA HAS MADE SCANT EFFORT to understand the cigar industry. It concedes that it has little idea how many small handmade-cigar manufacturers exist in the U.S. and exporting countries. The agency estimates that compliance with the new regs will cost each small manufacturer up to $759,000 initially and another half-million dollars a year. The Small Business Administration’s Advocacy Office protested that the proposed regulations fail to discuss the costs of the proposed rule on many potentially affected small entities. If the new rules are finalized, many, if not most, small cigar producers will be driven out of business.
J.C. Newman Cigar, the last large-scale cigar manufacturer in Tampa, Fla., protested the FDA regs last summer by unveiling a giant banner on its 104-year-old clock tower proclaiming, “Save Cigar City.” Jimmy Lakey, owner of a premium Colorado cigar maker, warns, “If Obama’s FDA carries out its regulation of the cigar industry, Lakey Cigar Co. will be out of business.”
The FDA regulatory notice evokes a vision of bureaucrats as knights on white horses, riding in to save people from themselves. It states, “All tobacco products containing nicotine are addictive, and FDA is not currently aware of any tobacco products that do not contain nicotine.”
Federal restrictions on cigars would be liberating because all smokers are presumed to be enslaved to their vice.
Tobacco use by teens is at the lowest levels ever recorded—down more than 50% since 1997. But the FDA still proclaims a national emergency and invokes children’s welfare to justify smiting every adult’s freedom. Its regulatory notice frets about the potential impact of nicotine on young minds.
Excessive consumption of cigars can cause oral and throat cancers. The FDA’s regulatory-impact analysis states that “heavy cigar smoking or inhalation of cigar smoke leads to increased risk of coronary heart disease and may cause chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.” However, the FDA has no data on how many Americans smoke enough stogies to rank as excessive users. Most experts concede that occasional smoking of cigars is far less toxic than daily smoking of cigarettes.
The FDA’s impact analysis indicates that most of its proposed restrictions will do little to boost public health. It said the largest health benefit from the new rules would result from new warning labels on cigars. But mandating warning labels isn’t enough to satisfy prohibitionists.
The Obama anti-tobacco campaign is driven by zealotry, not science. The FDA is part of the Department of Health and Human Services, which is carrying out a “strategic action plan” with “the bold vision of a society free from tobacco-related death and disease.”
The proposed anti-cigar regulations are based on the principle that the feds have moral and legal authority to prohibit any behavior they decree is harmful. As this principle gains ground, the government can consider bans on caffeine, junk food, and other allegedly addictive substances. But there will never be a Federal Register notice on the perils of total subjugation to imperious bureaucrats.
Will the FDA issue decrees with a Castro-like “command and control” mind-set to prohibit everything that bureaucrats don’t certify as healthy? If a 52-year-old trade embargo can totter, perhaps there is hope that Americans can stop the FDA from crushing one of life’s simple pleasures.
JAMES BOVARD is the author of Attention Deficit Democracy, Lost Rights, and eight other books.
*Thanks to Dan Picasso for the great illustration for Barron’s
On Twitter @jimbovard